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You Can Know Who I Am

Yellow House celebrates diversity and differences by (re)setting the table

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Around this table, are all welcome and everyone has a seat of honor.

Art has not always been the most inclusive creative landscape. The halls of the great masters are markedly monochromatic, and finding success as an emerging artist may seem an impossible goal. Yellow House hopes to change this with a new exhibition that challenges public perception about art and artists.

Welcome to (Re)Set the Table. Multicultural and empowering, Yellow House’s newest exhibition celebrates the underdog. You may not know these artists by name, but you should. They’re going places.

“The themes of inclusion, exclusion, representation, how you define your own place in the world—especially when other people are often the ones trying to define it for you—for me, it hits at the heart of Yellow House,” says Yellow House’s founder and director, Hope McMath. “Part of our purpose for being is blurring the lines between expert and emerging, between art and activism, between history and the contemporary. It feels like this show, is in a way, probably our signature exhibition.”

Yellow House successfully hosted the first iteration of (Re)Set the Table last year.

“Re-setting the table is intended to raise the question, when we look at our community, ‘Who’s at the proverbial table?’” McMath explains. “Who sits in positions of power? Who do we look to as leaders? Whose stories do we hear? Our interest was to address those questions by giving attention to artists who represent communities who are not at the table or are on the margin.”

Finding raw local talent was the perfect challenge for McMath and one she took quite seriously: “It was important for me to shift my own assumptions by reaching beyond the artists that I knew to find people that are doing great work but just don’t have the visibility, either because of age or socioeconomics or because of the community they represent.”

The artwork is as varied and versatile as the artists themselves. From paintings to prints, drawings to sculptures, photographs to a physical table set by local refugees, (Re)Set the Table is a feast for the imagination, tackling pertinent themes like migration, equality, gender, LGBTQ rights, belonging and self-acceptance. In all, nine individual artists and one local art group are highlighted.

Malath Albakri is among them; she is an Iraqi immigrant whose artwork highlights the struggles faced by refugee women and the challenges involved in creating a sense of ‘home’ in a new world. The themes are rooted in the personal sense of despair and disconnectedness that the artist experienced after coming to the U.S.

Albakri, who has a degree in electrical engineering, worked for an American organization in Iraq. When her life was threatened, she was offered refuge and a fresh start here. Yet the challenges of integration were far greater than she imagined, and she slipped into depression. She felt she couldn’t do anything. But art proved to be something she could do.

“I find that art brings peace to my heart,” Albakri says. “Through art, even though we are different, I discovered a way to be part of this community. I always believed that if you want someone to be a part of a community, you have to give them an opportunity to participate.”

One Heart Jax—an organization of local refugee women seeking connection and friendship through art—has played a significant role in Albakri’s process. Art serves as a voice for Albakri and her fellow immigrants. In addition to having her cultural commentary on display at Yellow House and the 5 & Dime, Albakri photographed some of the women artists at One Heart Jax to complement the table setting.

“I call this photography, Look Into My Eyes—You Can Know Who I Am,” explains Albakri. “The table symbolizes home and trying to make a home in a new country. Most of [the women] bring special stuff from their countries. Like me; I bring some Iraqi money, pictures, flags, spices. This exhibit gives us the opportunity to teach people about who we are. Most [people] don’t know about the refugees, why they are here, who they are. Most of them, they don’t listen to refugees. They listen to media or other people. So we just wanted to share our story, share our culture, share our hopes, everything. Because if you don’t know the people, you may judge them. Even though we are all different, we can be one heart.”

Another up-and-coming local artist featured in (Re)Set the Table is KeShauna Davis, an aspiring architect, Jacksonville native and UNF sculpture student whose iron creations explore African-American and female stereotypes. Her casts are striking. She used her own body as the template. Whimsical and fun, Davis’ sculptures speak to identity and how culture looks at black women.

“The nose-and-mouth piece, called The Internet, refers to my heritage, because most times, the most stereotypical and distinct parts of people from my culture—African-American culture—are the nose and mouth,” says Davis. “I titled it The Internet because when you’re on the internet, you just have all these different opinions from all these different people. People’s opinions on the internet can really change your life.”

The iron backside is called Life Doesn’t Frighten Me and serves as a message of self-acceptance and empowerment.

“Life can be so challenging and so daunting,” the artist says. “We live in a crazy, crazy world. Women’s bodies can make their life really, really hard. That’s why I chose iron to display on the wall. Life can be frightening, but we can still do it. We still can make anything of ourselves.”

The magnificence of Jacksonville’s cultural tapestry is exactly what Hope McMath hopes to highlight in this exhibition. It’s not just established artists who are doing great things in our city; we must applaud and support those making small waves as well.

“For me, when I think about the beauty of our community, when we think about the people who live here, it’s incredibly diverse,” McMath says. “And I think many of us—and I include me in that—tend to move through the world on a day-to-day basis, not necessarily seeing that diversity. We all formulate these bubbles around us. This show shines a light on our community’s strength. It will hopefully pique curiosity in the visitors who come and see it.”

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